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UK: Hepatitis C diagnosis up by a third in two years

Tuesday, 30 July, 2013

UK hepatitis C diagnoses have increased by a third between 2010 and 2012, according to a new report published by Public Health England. Figures from the report, released ahead of World Hepatitis Day (28th July), show hospital admissions for liver cancer and final stage liver disease to have also increased from 574 in 1998 to 2,266 in 2012.

Hepatitis C is a blood born infection primarily affecting the liver. It can lead to cirrhosis, cancer and other liver diseases that can be a major cause of hospitalisations for people living with HIV. Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, but it can be cured with a course of antiretroviral treatment. Yet, only 3 percent of patients are receiving treatment each year. This may be connected to the fact many people do not realise they are infected as the liver can still function when damaged which can delay the onset of symptoms for several years. This has led the World Health Organisation to dub the infection “a viral time bomb”.

It is therefore vital to raise public awareness on the condition so people can be promptly diagnosed and treated before the arrival of major liver complications. An epidomoligcal model showed that 6,000 hepatitis C-related deaths could be averted in the next 30 years by doubling the number of patients on treatment. Further to improving the health and well-being of an individual, evidence has also shown treatment to reduce to risk of transmission.

There has been much headway in prevention, especially among injecting drug users who remain the most at risk of hepatitis C, with rates between 33 percent and 49 percent across the UK. IDUs reporting sharing injecting equipment is falling, and is likely to follow a downward trajectory with needle and syringe programmes continuing to develop in the UK. However, as the authors of the report highlight, “there is much more that can and should be done” to improve the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care of hepatitis C across the UK to reverse the rise in related morbidity and mortality. Recommendations to improve the UK response from the report include; encouraging primary care providers to receive awareness training on the condition, and for more up-to-date studies to inform targeted prevention campaigns.